“The social meaning of the technologies is not determined by the technologies themselves; rather, it will be shaped and reshaped by how they are embedded into social life, advanced, and transformed by the myriad of individual actors, large institutions, practices, and projects that constitute contemporary reality.” –Felix Stalder
The use of celebrity to promote humanitarian ideals and generate revenue that can be used toward humanitarian relief responses is not a new concept. One event often referenced as a classic example of capitalizing on this concept is when Band Aid was formed back in the 80s by Bob Geldof. The group was composed of about 40 artists who were committed to raising money for famine relief in Ethiopia. The hit single created by Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was highly successful worldwide. The song sold over two million copies, raising more than $24 million. The group’s success was seen as a large increase in celebrity diplomacy and inspired similar actions of support for famine relief from other countries too. The subsequent concerts of Band Aid and Live Aid combined was able to raise about $150 million for the famine relief effort in Ethiopia (Band Aid, 2017).
Bandaid Group Photo
According to an article written by Castles (2014), Bob Geldof and Band Aid “deserve credit for putting the growing power of celebrity to good use, even if their incredible success doing so arguably changed the nature of charity itself. In the years after the triumph of Band Aid, charity and activism became less and less about grassroots action, and more and more about celebrity-driven spectacle. Geldof and Ure played a role in this shift; they helped position goodwill in the slipstream of cultural and free-market forces.”
The nexus of where celebrity and humanitarianism meet is an interesting point to explore. Celebrity connection to various humanitarian and development causes, or any specific social movement vs. pure self-promotion can create some interesting overlaps. And the examples are many. Where on the spectrum of self-proportion vs. commitment to a specific cause each specific celebrity case may fall could also be a subject of much speculation. Does Angelina Jolie play the role of ambassador for UNHCR and adopt from abroad because she believes that it truly helps the actual plight of refugees or because it is good for her image as a celebrity who is nobly committed to humanitarian work.
As noted by Manning (2012), “recent years have seen an explosion of Internet-based communication and publishing forums, ranging from Facebook and Twitter to more traditional websites. These have dramatically lowered the barriers to producing and distributing content, and people can now easily share information, experiences, perspectives, artistic creations – and almost anything else – with their fellow Internet users around the world. Some decry this proliferation of online publishing as chaotic, overwhelming, rife with minutiae, and lacking in standards. Others claim it heralds the emergence of a more democratic, inclusive world of free speech, public debate, open exchange of knowledge, and global collaboration.” Celebrity and celebrity causes also have the ability to tap into and thrive in this ever expansive realm of information exchange.
The rise of the internet, and social media, has increased and also fueled even greater use of celebrity status to endorse and support certain humanitarian and social causes. Organizations, more and more are also becoming more reliant on this link to celebrity figures in the promotion of their work. This increase can generate positive attention towards issues and causes that otherwise would not garner as much attention in regular mainstream media or even through other social media sources. At the same time though, these complex issues and causes can also sometimes become warped and unrealistically twisted by forging unnatural connections between what could also be considered to be two very dichotomous topics that lack real bridging factors.
Today it is often not even celebrities choosing their own causes, but rather specific organizations seeking our celebrities to increase their own imaging and branding. The similarities between this approach and regular commercial marketing strategies is very recognizable. One could potentially question if it is ethical or just another practical approach to raising awareness and engaging with often disinterested, distracted and “developed” western or northern populations.
Even the United Nations have begun more and more during the past 10-15 years to use social media and other platforms to promote and connect their organizational images to celebrity figures. Take for example the United Nations Mine Action Services decision to nominate Daniel Craig, UN Global Advocate for the Elimination of Mines and Explosives Hazards, at the United Nations headquarters a couple of years ago.
“Mine action work is an essential component for achieving peace, security and stabilization, and as an enabler for UN peace missions. Landmines, unexploded bombs and improvised explosive devices too often hamper humanitarian access and devastate innocent lives. I take great pleasure in designating Daniel Craig as a United Nations Global Advocate to support our work to eliminate these threats,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon while making the nomination.
The Secretary General mentioned that he hopes that Mr. Craig would raise public awareness about UN mine action efforts, visit mine action programmes worldwide, and assist in raising political and financial support. “I count on his advocacy to make a difference,” the Secretary-General said when presenting Mr. Craig.
Connecting or reinforcing a James Bond image for Humanitarian Mine Action activities might not necessarily be such a huge stretch. The issue may still be though if the shallow association ends there in the minds of too many people. Real humanitarian mine action policies, approaches and activities are so much more complex and challenging than a soft layer of celebrity draped over the top of them can ever begin to portray. To what extent is this celebrity connotation connected with any of this reality, or is it just a distraction and a misplaced marketing tool that is too far removed from this context?
Band Aid (band). Wikipedia Article retrieved on 30 September 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Band_Aid_(band)
Castles, Simon. Famine and Fame 30 years on. Bob Geldof’s Band Aid Legacy is Again in the Spotlight. The Sydney Morning Herald. Nov. 14th 2014, retrieved on 30 Sept 2017 from www.smh.com.au/entertainment/famine-and-fame-30-years-on-bob-geldofs-band-aid-legacy-is-again-in-the-spotlight-20141111-11kalv.html
Manning, R. 2012: FollowMe.IntDev.Com: International Development in the Blogosphere, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School.
UNMAS, “Actor Daniel Craig Becomes First UN Global Advocate for Elimination of Mines.” Friday, 27th April 2015. New York. Retrieved from the UNMAS website: https://www.un.int/news/actor-daniel-craig-becomes-first-un-global-advocate-elimination-mines
Mandiberg, M. 2012: The Social Media Reader, New York, NY: NYU Press.
Images: BandAid Photo credit to Brian Airs
Photo of Daniel Craig credited to UNMAS